History of Human Resources & Case Studies

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Whenever you’re considering pursuing a career in a particular subject area it’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself with the history of the field. So what is the history of human resources and how far has it come? To answer these questions we’ll look at a brief history of the progression of human resources and examine some case studies that show real-world examples of what happens in the industry. The more you know about what has happened in the past, the more equipped you can be to deal with HR-related issues in the present.

Human Resources History Explained 

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Prior to the start of the 20th century, industrial development had already began to change the way the world worked. Cheap and fast production became a priority, which often required that people work long hours under less than desirable conditions. So although human resources didn’t exist in name, guilds were created with the purpose of helping to improve working conditions.[i]

By the beginning of the 20th century, organizations began to introduce personnel departments that were responsible for dealing with issues like safety. However, employee productivity was still the highest priority. A significant change came after WWII, when the military developed training programs and the idea of training and development became a respected part of the personnel department. During this time period trade unions also developed in factories, which gave a voice to employees when dealing with employers.[i]

A real revolution in human resources came to the U.S. with burgeoning economic growth in the 1970s. Organizations required a large amount of skilled employees and employees gained more negotiating power as a result – which led to the concept of HR management.[ii] For the first time, employees were viewed as a major asset and the importance of maintaining their loyalty and commitment was recognized by managers.

Human resources departments became responsible for improving employee motivation and this resulted in the introduction of the idea of performance management and planning. By the 1980s, most organizations had accepted the value of providing consistent and formal feedback to their employees, and the benefit of tailoring programs and policies based on employee feedback. Employees who were eager to learn more were given access to training and development programs that could have a real impact on their career development.[ii]

More recently, the introduction of human resource management systems (HRMS) allow human resources professionals to utilize technology to more effectively manage areas including:

  • Payroll
  • Time sheets
  • Benefits administration
  • Performance appraisals
  • Recruitment and hiring
  • Analytics

As technologies continue to improve, more companies are looking at new solutions such as cloud HR software, which makes it possible to avoid the issue of having to continuously update systems. Examples of HR providers that are offering this technology include Oracle, SAP, Workday, ADP and Infor. According to Forbes, the number one driver of the demand for new HRMS technology is improved interfaces that are more user-friendly. An example of this is mobile apps that allow employees to manage vacation, time sheets and the like from their phones.[iii]

Human Resources Case Studies

To give you a better understanding of how human resources situations play out on a larger scale, we will look at two different human resources case studies. One illustrates how human resources departments can make positive changes that gain employee support and success – and the other illustrates the potential danger in enforcing policies that are viewed by employees as unfair or ineffective.

Case Study One: Big Brothers and Big Sisters[iv]

Big Brothers and Big Sisters Edmonton and Area (BBBSE) is a non-profit dedicated to the healthy development of children and their families through quality, one-on-in volunteer relationships and related programs.

According to its executive director, BBBSE is robust and healthy from both a funding and functional viewpoint. From 2004-2007 the organization doubled the number of children it has served and is expected to double it again in the future. These success is attributed to key three factors from a human resources standpoint:

  • An HR management framework grounded in a strong client focus
  • An organizational culture that places value on employees
  • Collaborations, partnerships and shared service models

So what exactly does this mean?

To improve its human resources management framework, BBBSE underwent a review process that focused on the services they offered to families, how they were offered and board relations, roles and responsibilities. As a result, the organization was able to rework its programming structure in a way that allowed them to serve more clients, without overtaxing their staff. By partnering with other community agencies, BBBSE was also able to better meet their client needs and create a new employee structure to better support their staff.

BBBSE credits much of its success to long-term involvement by staff and senior volunteers. The organization made a concerted effort to work with its staff to create a shared vision of their objectives and this shared experience helped employees stay connected – and loyal to the agency. Thus, engaging employees and minimizing turnover.

The re-org of the company’s delivery model and processes also involved delegating more decision-making opportunities to lower level staff, which made them more aware of and involved in the different facets of BBSE’s business – and better able to perform their jobs at a higher level.

Case Study Two: Yahoo[v]

If you spent any time on the Internet, you’re likely familiar with the search engine Yahoo. In 2013, Yahoo got quite a bit of press when remote employees were told they would no longer be able to work from home in order to promote a more “collaborative” atmosphere. This move alienated many employees, particularly those who had been hired with the agreement that they would be allowed to work remotely, as well as single parents whose livelihood and family life depended on the ability to work from home.

More recently, employees were again up in arms when Yahoo announced a new policy that requires managers to rank employees on a bell curve and terminate those on the lower end. The company later retracted, saying the curve was not mandatory. But at that point the damage was done.

Forcing managers to appraise employees on a curve became popular in the 1980s but has been widely unpracticed in recent years. According to the Institute of Corporate Productivity, companies that perform well are less likely to use forced ranking systems than those who don’t. Some research even suggests that employee performance doesn’t follow a bell curve at all – rather that most people are slightly worse than average, with a few people performing at a very high level. In a situation where lay-offs occur under this system “the rigid distribution of the bell-curve forces managers to label a high performer as mediocre. A high performer, unmotivated by such artificial demotion, behaves like a mediocre.”

Considering the above, it’s unclear why Yahoo decided to put this system into practice (at least on an unofficial level), although it’s too early to really see the resulting effects. However, it may be unlucky that this system of ranking employees against one another would inspire motivation or innovation in staff, especially if those who perform well but are not recognized for their efforts.

[i] creativehrm.com/hr-management-history.html | [ii] creativehrm.com/early-hr-management.html | [iii] forbes.com/sites/joshbersin/2013/05/31/7-reasons-hr-technology-is-so-hot-today/ | [iv] hrcouncil.ca/hr-toolkit/BBBS_Casestudy.cfm | [v] businessweek.com/articles/2013-11-12/yahoos-latest-hr-disaster-ranking-workers-on-a-curve